Nigeria’s Bandit Problem: Explaining the Conflict Drivers

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    By Alex Batubo

    INSECURITY is a major problem that we all face, from theft, burglary to kidnapping and banditry. This report makes a serious attempt to explain the underlying causes for this problem, specifically in Zamfara State. Once we understand the reasons for the increase in insecurity we may begin to consider how to address the problem.

    In many cases the nature of the problem is misunderstood. The report is clear that all the evidence shows that the problem is rooted in disputes over land use between the farming and herder communities. It is not a question of criminals/bandits/terrorists invading the state.

    The report also makes it clear that there are no easy answers, like more action by the security forces or blaming a particular ethnic group. These approaches are often part of the problems that brought about this disaster. The same problems are hardly likely to be an effective way out. “Rather the crisis is rooted in several overlapping economic, political and social problems.” (page 4)

    The result is devastating, with the report estimating that over 12,000 people have died, over a million displaced and over a million children now out of school. We are descending in a vicious cycle. As the great Polish socialist, Rosa Luxemburg said, “the future is either socialism or barbarism”. This is what barbarism looks like. Only addressing the fundamental issues will really address the problem.

    Insecurity has grown terribly over the last few years, associated with the increased level of poverty and inequality. Other factors have also contributed to this devastating and complex problem. There are no easy or simple solutions that can quickly reduce this problem and some popular demands may make the situation worse. In the end, only addressing the fundamental problems of equitable access to land, and more generally, poverty, inequality and corruption will bring a lasting solution.

    There are over 100 heterogeneous bandit groups operating in the North-West involving about 30,000 people. Each group clearly has its own origins, justifications and approaches. But the fundamental problems appear to be poverty, climate change and resource scarcity, especially land. The disaster has been made worse as it has been politicised and the President’s ethnic group blamed.

    The scale of the problem and the inherent corruption in the polity meant that traditional community reconciliation, the judiciary system, vigilante groups and the security forces have failed to cope, rendering the situation highly despairing.

    According to the National Bureau of Statistics, northwest Nigeria contains some of the poorest states in the country. Sokoto State has the highest rate of poverty at almost 88%, and the rate in Zamfara was almost 74%, way above the national average and the sixth highest. A World Bank poverty assessment issued this year clearly mapped an overlap between conflict and poverty. It also assessed Zamfara as the fifth multi-dimensionally poorest state and one of the two poorest states in terms of food insecurity. Finally it noted that poverty is more widespread and deeper in rural areas.

    It is not just about absolute poverty, but the fact is that it is getting worse. Both Oxfam and the World Bank agree that the level of poverty in Nigeria increased even in the first fifteen years after the end of military rule when the economy generally expanded at a rapid rate. So there is little hope that things will improve in future.

    Population growth and climate change have led to increased land-disputes. As in other parts of the country, these can be categorised as farmer-herder disputes which in the North-West takes on ethnic dimension, broadly between Hausa farmers and Fulani herders. The reports estimates that “50-75% of ten northern states may be experiencing desertification.” (page 7)

    In the last thirty years, the rainy season has reduced from 150 to only 120 days. As a result, over the last two decades, at least the previous symbiotic relationship between the farmers and herders has broken down. The report demonstrates that farmers have encroached onto the grazing reserves, corridors and watering holes of the herders. The land-use arrangements were often based on traditional and honour systems that are now disputed. The 1978 Land Use Decree created conflicting systems of land tenure – traditional yet legally non-binding versus “modern” and legally binding.

    According to the report, “A 2018 report [on Zamfara]… identified 37 grazing reserves…but found that some had been completely lost, whilst most were taken over.” (page 8)

    The scale of the crisis has overwhelmed the traditional dispute resolution arrangements and the formal justice systems, both of which have been weakened by politicisation and corruption. “One bandit leader gave the example of his father who had spent seven years pursing as case in the courts. At the end of the case, despite having spent 100 heads of cattle, no justice was served,” says the report (page 9).

    The vigilante and self-defence groups have been ethnically partisan; especially the Hausa based Yan Sakai. The report states that far from addressing the problems, Yan Sakai “has been central to the growth of conflict in the North-West by fuelling tit-for-tat violence” (page 25). They are said to have 10,000 members in Zamfara alone and occupy a grey zone between being legal and illegal, with little consistency between states.

    While the report notes that “each Nigerian state has a formal vigilante network organised under the auspices of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN) (page 25), it also stated that these groups are often poorly trained and equipped, “relying on sticks, machetes, or… Dane guns” (page 25). Like Yan Sakai, especially if ethnically based, they can make the situation worse rather than being any part of the solution.

    Clearly, as the report indicates, it is not always a case of poor people turning to banditry to solve their economic woes. Some people, especially their leaders, can become rich and powerful: “The line between economic necessity – ‘I must rustle some cattle to buy guns to defend my people from Yan Sakai’ – and economic opportunism – ‘The more cattle I rustle, the more guns I can purchase, the more powerful and wealthy I become’ – is thin” (page 13)

    Women and children often suffer as a result of insecurity and banditry.  But women are not always innocent victims. The report states that: “One of the biggest drug dealers in Sokoto state is a woman known by the name of Mama Jazina” and “The head of the hunters’ association in Katsina is a woman who seems to command significant respect from the governor’s (overwhelmingly male) officials and advisors”.  “In Sokoto, the chief intelligence officer of the VGN is female.” (page 28).

    There have been a number of local peace deals with individual bandit leaders, but these have rarely been implemented or lasted long. Such deals may help, but would need to be more comprehensive, involving all the key organisations and communities, be written and legally binding and not be restricted to the bandit leaders.

    The report contradicts many popular views on the bandits. The role of political godfathers appears not to be significant. There appear to be only “a small minority” of foreigners. In many cases, the Fulani also appear to be victims. As in all community disputes, there are at least two sides. The involvement of Islamic militants (Boko Haram, ISWAP, etc.) “in the northwest has been over stated” (page 21).

    Community self-defence groups, especially if ethnically based, are part of the problem rather than providing any solution. Similarly the call for the army and the air force to deal more decisively with the problem is not supported by the report, claiming that “the military has also struggled to contain banditry for several reasons” (page 24).

    The military have depended on local informers, but because of the local ethnic divisions, many of these are prejudiced. As a result: “Various sources accuse the military of indiscriminately targeting Fulani communities and of engaging in cattle rustling, property destruction, and extrajudicial killings” (page 24).

    The Nigerian Air Force “has become increasingly engaged in combatting banditry, with NAF conducting 150 missions in Kaduna State in the first quarter of 2021” (page 25). But “its track record in the northeast gives cause for concern about collateral damage” [killing innocent civilians] (page 25), although it did kill one bandit leader in Zamfara State, Alhaji Auta.

    Insecurity has grown terribly over the last few years, associated with the increased level of poverty and inequality. Other factors have also contributed to this devastating and complex problem. There are no easy or simple solutions that can quickly reduce this problem and some popular demands may make the situation worse. In the end, only addressing the fundamental problems of equitable access to land, and more generally, poverty, inequality and corruption will bring a lasting solution.

    The full report can be read at: https://cddwestafrica.org/northwest-nigerias-bandit-problem-explaining-the-conflict-drivers/

    This review, forwarded to National Record by a fan of the publication, is originally entitled: “North-West Nigeria’s Bandit Problem: Explaining the conflict drivers (2022) – a review of the Centre for Democracy and Development report.”

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